Brushing up on skills — In preparation of fire season, Healdsburg reserve firefighters brush up on some important firefighting skills while socially distancing.

Local fire departments kick off vegetation management work, refresher training sessions

 The northern California and northern Sonoma County regions have the potential for above normal fire activity starting in June, according to a new report from the National Interagency Fire Center predictive services, and CalFire Captain Robert Foxworthy, who says the conditions are stacking up for the potential of an above average season.

So what marks the start of the fire season?

“It is very hard to say an exact date and it is 100% weather dependent,” Foxworthy said.

Foxworthy said while last year’s fire season overall was relatively quiet, this year could be different due to lack of rain and the severe drought the region is experiencing.

“We are preparing for an early fire season,” said Sebastopol Fire Chief Bill Braga. “Another drought year has impacted us again for this wildland fire season.”

According to the United States Drought Monitor, the Bay Area and the northern region of the state are in severe drought. The northernmost part of the state up to the Oregon border is in the red with extreme drought.

Potential impacts from severe drought include: longer fire season with high burn intensity, dry fuels and the potential for large fires, increased water temperature and decreased river flow, among others, according to the drought monitor.

“The conditions are leading to that it could be a more intense fire season than normal … It is looking like we have considerably less (rain) than what it was looking like in the December to January timeframe. It got dry. We had limited amounts of rain, and the state drought monitor shows us in severe drought from San Francisco to the Oregon border,” Foxworthy said.

He added that usually Southern California sees an earlier start to the fire season than its neighbors to the north, however this year, the tables have turned.

“We’re actually the ones that are kind of behind this year's event, though this area is where we tend to get the majority of rain,” he said, cautioning that there’s no crystal ball for an exact outlook.

CalFire units throughout the state have already started hiring seasonal firefighters and several local fire departments and agencies have started ramping up their fire fuel reduction and weed abatement work this week, May 4, which also marks the start of Wildfire Preparedness Week.

The Healdsburg Fire Department is in the first few stages of its weed abatement and inspection work and Healdsburg Fire Marshal Linda Collister says the program has been successful so far.

“The city of Healdsburg has a weed abatement program that has been very effective, we’ve done it for years, so a lot of the residents in our community are used to it. They know in mid-April we start doing weed abatement inspections,” Collister said

The department starts inspections in April so they can force abate properties in July or August if needed. Properties have to be abated by the first week of June.

“Over the years we haven’t really had to enforce abate properties or lien them because people are so used to it. Right now, if you were to drive around Healdsburg you’ll see that a lot of people have already abated their properties because they don’t want their name to go on a list that goes to city council,” Collister said.

On May 18, Collister will present a list of properties who have not yet abated their fire fuels to the city council, and a nuisance will be declared. The property owners are then notified and  given 30 days to abate their property.  

Collister said they are completing this step two weeks later than normal due to COVID-19.

“They usually have until the first week of June to abate it and then we have a public hearing on June 15. People can talk about it or protest it, and then after that we do re-inspections. We’ve never had anyone protest it. People have commented that they like it because it keeps the city clean,” Collister said.

The Sebastopol Fire Department is taking a similar approach and Braga is overseeing Sebastopol’s weed abatement program.

“I enforce our weed abatement program here in the city of Sebastopol, which started this week.  Property owners and homeowners are required to mow, disk, cut and remove all high and dry weeds and vegetation in the next 30 days, and to maintain the growth throughout the hot and dry summer months,” Braga said. 

The Northern Sonoma County Fire District started its defensive space inspections on May 4, and will be taking a look at how to manage fire fuel in the west Dry Creek, Lake Sonoma and north east Geyserville areas.

“We want to encourage homeowners to get their vegetation in order for fire season,” said Northern Sonoma County Fire District Chief Marshall Turbeville.

With the help of funds from a grant, the district will also be doing fire fuel clearance work along private roads in the area. They will also be conducting a few permitted vegetation burns on Healdsburg Ridge and over by Lake Sonoma in the coming days.

In June, the district will focus on staffing up and will bring on additional firefighters for the season.

When asked if current conditions are pointing to an above normal fire season, Turbeville said, “I think that is fair to say.”

When trying to determine the intensity of an upcoming fire season, Turbeville said, “I look at two factors: If we are below average in our rainfall, and if we have dry weather.”

These conditions can make fire fuel that much drier and more of a risk.

“We just want to continue to remind people to prepare,” he said, noting that folks should be careful when doing vegetation management.

He said if you are doing yard work during a dry period and you ask yourself, “Could this start a fire” and the answer is “yes,” then you should probably mitigate that risk whether it’s doing yard work early in the morning before 10 a.m., or finding a safe place to set down your weed whacker.

The Cloverdale Fire Protection District is also working on vegetation management in preparation of the fire season.

“We are starting our weed abatement for the city and throughout the district, so that will be our focus for the next 60 days,” said Cloverdale Fire Protection District Chief Jason Jenkins. In addition, the district will be closely watching vegetation burns since a few vegetation burns have escaped.

“We’ve had a few relatively small escaped fire burns. We’ll be monitoring it,” Jenkins said.

He said they are also focused on refreshing firefighters skills and are conducting a number of self-paced training sessions with small groups.

While this type of preventative work typically kicks off in April local fire departments, such as the Healdsburg Fire Department, are trying to encourage year round fire fuel maintenance.

“The way they are looking at it, is you basically have fire season all year, so prepare all year long, because we just don’t know,” Collister said. “We don’t know how the rain is going to affect the different species of grasses and vegetation and we don’t know if we are going to get a late rain, so we ask people to prepare all year-long so they can do fuels management when it is a little wetter and cut the grass when they’re not going to start a fire.”

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